Riggleman says Strasburg likely to start in minors

The first bullpen session Stephen Strasburg threw in major-league spring training was as much of a media event as it was a rudimentary early-season exercise. More than 100 fans strained to get a look at the right-hander, who threw 37 pitches in the middle of five hurlers on the Nats’ back fields. Reporters from the New York Times and Philadelphia Inquirer trekked across the state to take in the occasion. Team president Stan Kasten and general manager Mike Rizzo paid close attention to the proceedings. And after he was done with the Nationals’ first formal workout, Strasburg was rushed away to get ready for a live appearance on ESPN’s “Baseball Tonight.”

In the middle of the fervor, Nats manager Jim Riggleman had a job to do -- to rein in expectations to more manageable levels, or perhaps simply to keep the spring from turning into a Strasburg press junket. Whether he accomplished that, or whether his words on Sunday afternoon were rooted in strategy, remains to be seen. But Riggleman made a game effort to cool the Strasburg hype, just a little.

Riggleman said he doesn’t consider Strasburg to be competing for a spot in the rotation, and hinted the 21-year-old will likely start in the minors, barring an extraordinary spring that forces a change of plans.

“I really wouldn’t want to say he’s competing for a spot in the rotation,” Riggleman said. “We’re open-minded. Everybody’s performances will determine where they end up. He could pitch real well down here, but we still may feel like the development process is to be respected in going through the system and getting really used to the rigors of throwing every fifth day in games.”

Riggleman managed Kerry Wood during his first season with the Cubs in 1998, and saw first-hand the effects the right-hander’s brilliant rookie season had on his elbow, which caused him to miss the entire 1999 season after Tommy John surgery. He said if he had to do it again, he would have used Wood less. Like Wood and numerous other power pitchers, Strasburg will have nights where he winds up throwing too many pitches because of his ability to miss bats.

It’s conceivable Strasburg will pitch a couple of games in big-league camp and get sent to the minor-league side, just so he can work without the crushing load of speculation he’s going to have every time he pitches in front of a big audience. Even if he forces his way into the rotation mix all spring, it’s clear the onus is going to be on Strasburg to make the Nats keep him in the majors.

“We don’t say, ‘If he throws good, he’s going to be in the rotation,’ but we’re not eliminating it, either,” Riggleman said. “We really appreciate the process players have to go through to get here, and he may have to go through it.”

If you’re interested in hearing all of Riggleman’s daily session with reporters, you can listen to it in two parts: one here and one here. It got broken into two parts while Riggleman went in search of water to relieve a cough, and the combined file was a little big for the web application I’m messing around with today. So today’s file is in two parts, and barring future respiratory issues, future files will be in one part.

We’re headed downstairs to talk with Strasburg now, so I’ll be back with more from that session.